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Why women now lead the dissident fight in Cuba

Only a handful of political activists are willing to risk fighting for basic freedoms. But more ordinary Cubans, they say, are asking how to get involved.

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But, despite the historic apathy fueled by the fear of imprisonment or worse, the passing of the mantle from Fidel to Raúl has stirred people's expectations – and created anxiety within the highest ranks.

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"The government is worried about a Tiananmen Square situation," says Brian Latell, former CIA analyst assigned to profiling Fidel and Raúl, and author of the book, "After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro's Regime and Cuba's Next Leader."

Although few expect a popular uprising akin to that of the Chinese demonstrators who were famously gunned down for protesting political repression in Beijing in 1989, the Cuban government is cautious. "Raúl recognizes he's in uncharted waters," says Mr. Erikson. "He's moving with extraordinary care and keeping close tabs on dissidents."

"Raúl is a very smart administrator by nature, but he needs to step very carefully," says Freyre. "The ability of the man on the street to pressure the government has increased substantially after Fidel."

'Economic apartheid'

One of the issues that Cubans complain most about is the country's two-currency policy, which Ms. Tapanes, Rivero, and fellow advocates call "economic apartheid."

Cubans get paid in pesos. But tourists, state-owned hotels, and other services that cater to foreigners use "convertible pesos," or CUC, which are worth 25 times as much as pesos. Most consumer items, beyond basic food and clothing, must be purchased with CUCs. But most Cubans cannot afford such purchases because government salaries are paid in regular pesos.

"Raúl made changes, but the problem is that until they reform the two currencies system, the changes won't do any good," says Tapanes, explaining that few can afford cellphones or to stay in a tourist hotel. "The only people that can do anything are the ones who get [US dollar] remittances from family in the states – or prostitutes [paid by tourists]." People are so desperate, she says, that even "regular" married couples now agree that the wives – and the husbands – will sell themselves to cash in on Cuba's booming sex tourism trade.

Last month, several FLAMUR women were arrested for attempting to pay in pesos at a tourist restaurant, where only CUCs are accepted, as a form of protest. Last week, they tried the same thing at a pharmacy.

It was campaigning for a single currency that got Rivero punched in the mouth last August, she says. She was handing out T-shirts with the slogan: "Con la misma moneda," meaning "with the same money." This prompted three men, who she says were government-paid thugs, to attack her on a city bus and attempt to throw her out into traffic. She lost two back teeth, she says, opening wide to show the gaps.

Why one woman fights

Twenty women work for FLAMUR in Havana, communicating openly by phone despite government surveillance. Norvis Ortero Suarez, who lives in a tiny apartment with her two cats, Luna and Mami, is one of them.

"We're always under surveillance," says Ms. Suarez calmly, explaining that she works with other women to bring political prisoners food, medicine, books, and moral support. But, at times, she becomes the prisoner. "Sometimes they'll lock me up for a day or so."

But few of Cuba's political prisoners are women.

"The government has shown a real reluctance to lock women up for long periods of time," says Erikson. Why? "It could be two things: 1) The government is afraid of aggravating international opinion or 2) women are seen as less of a threat to the system."

But don't tell Suarez she's not a threat.